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‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’: Remembering the Humor, the Controversy and How It Changed TV

If you were to jump from one channel to another these days, there is absolutely nothing shocking about seeing people like Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert,Jimmy Fallon or Saturday Night Live openly mocking the President of the United States, government policy and pretty much everything else. It’s not even considered edgy humor anymore, just the norm. Flash back over 50 years ago, however, and virtually nobody was pushing the envelope … except for Dick and Tom Smothers, hosts of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (currently being shown on the getTV network).

“You think about all these people and their political humor, and they’re either on cable or late night,” suggests David Bianculli, author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the definitive look at the show. “What makes it so amazing to me was that the Smothers Brothers were doing it in the middle of prime time on Sunday nights, then television’s biggest viewing night of the week. And for a while they were among the most popular shows on all of television. I mean, nobody’s really replicated that in terms of satirical political comedy in more than 50 years.”


Even more powerful about the Smothers Brothers, he says, is that today television is so incredibly fragmented with people watching different shows on different devices at different times. “So the number of people who are watching Jimmy Kimmel is maybe a couple of million, and then it spreads as far as it does through social media, YouTube and various clips. But for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, everyone was tuning it at one time. Many millions of people.”

Tom and Dick were born respectively in 1937 and 1939 on Governors Island in New York Harbor, where their father, Thomas B. Smothers, Jr., a West Point graduate and U.S. Army officer, was stationed. Sadly Thomas died during World War II when he was being transported from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Fukuoka, Japan to another in Mukden, Manchukuo. As life moved on, and given their interest in folk music and comedy, they created an act together featuring both, often punctuated by Tom’s proclamation to Dick, “Mom liked you best!”

Courtesy getTV

They first brought their act to the public in a 1959 performance at San Francisco’s The Purple Onion, which led to them recording a number of albums. Their initial appearance on national television was on a 1961 episode of The Jack Paar Show and in 1965 they got their first series, a sitcom called The Smothers Brothers Show. In it, Dick was a swinging bachelor while Tom was an angel who was sent to Earth to help guide him down the proper path. It lasted a single season, largely, it’s believed, because it didn’t play to their combined strength of comedy and music. But even with this failure behind them, CBS still offered a slot for a one-hour comedy variety show. As such, it was a series that actually came in quietly and didn’t pick up a big stick until later.

Reflects David Bianculli, “It was a mid-season replacement series thrown on by CBS simply because one of the most popular variety shows of a few years before, The Gary Moore Show — which is where Carol Burnett came from — had stopped production a couple of times because Gary needed a rest, but then came back in 1966 on CBS and got killed in the ratings by Bonanza. That show was a hit when it premiered in 1959 on NBC and anything that CBS put against it didn’t work. So when Gary Moore really tanked, they needed a fast replacement for it. They didn’t have a good drama series in the works on the shelf ready to put in, so they went with the Smothers Brothers. The head of programming at the time, Mike Dann, rightly considered them as what they were: just a couple of young goofball kids making fun of folk music.”

Please scroll down for much more on the Smothers Brothers.